Ainon Sapsaphas and Bethabara

by Michele Piccirillo

Bethabara. The Place of the Baptism

Ainon Sapsaphas

Modern exploration

The rediscovery of the site in 1995

Modern archaeological research is progressively explaining and identifying the monastic geography of the east shore of the Jordan River and of the Dead Sea with the sanctuaries recorded in the available sources of the Byzantine-Umayyad period.
The area most visited by Christian pilgrims is that which extends, opposite Jericho, from the east bank of the river to the sanctuary of Moses on Mount Nebo. They were attracted to the places along the Jordan in the territory of Livias - al-Rameh, which were connected with the memory of the baptism of Jesus and the preaching of John the Baptist, as well as to the places, further inland, which were related to the final episodes of the life and mission of Moses in the territory of Madaba.
Both groups of sanctuaries were located along the Livias-Esbous sector of the Roman road connecting Jerusalem to the Via Nova Traiana on the Jordanian high-plateau. 1 In there itineraries the pilgrims reckon the distance from one place to another along this road. According to the Onomasticon, Mount Nebo "is that which now has his name and which is on the way up from Livias to Esbus" (Onomasticon 16:24), and "that which is shown to travellers from the sixth milestone to the west of Esbus" (Onomasticon 136:5). According to the Pilgrim from Piacenza, "it is eight miles from the Jordan to the place where Moses died" (Itinerarium Antonini, 10).

Bethabara. The Place of the Baptism
For pilgrims coming from Jerusalem the visit started at the river Jordan, after a stop in the oasis of Jericho. At the ford, where the road crossed the river, five miles from the Dead Sea according to the Pilgrim of Bordeaux, seven miles for Theodosius, and six for the Pilgrim from Piacenza, certainly south of the modern Al-Hussein Bridge, they commemorated several biblical episodes: the miraculous crossing of the children of Israel narrated in Joshua 2, the crossing by the Prophets Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2:5-14), and the hill from where Elijah was taken up to heaven. The pilgrim Egeria was also shown a hill on which stood the altar built by the Tribes of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh, as narrated in Joshua 22.
At the same spot, they started commemorating the Baptism of Jesus, as narrated in the Gospel (Mt :1-17; Mk 1:2-8; Lk 3:1-14): "In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near". People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River...Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John" (Mt 3:1-17).
To this sanctuary refers the Madaba Map with the legend written on the west bank of the river accompanied by a church: Bethabara etc.
The Pilgrim Theodosius is the first to mention the church built by Emperor Anastasius at the end of the Vth century in honour of Saint John the Baptist. The church was built on arches so as to keep the flooding (rising) water from it. A marble column surmounted by an iron cross rose from the water to indicate the place where Jesus was baptised. The pilgrim writes: "At the place where my Lord was baptized is a marble column, and on top of it has been set an iron cross. There also is the Church of Saint John Baptist, which was constructed by the Emperor Anastasius. It stands on great vaults which are high enough for when the Jordan is in flood. The monks who reside at this Church each receive six shillings a year from the Treasury for their livelihood" (Theodosius, De Situ T.S., 20).
The Pilgrim from Piacenza had the opportunity, during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany at the river together with the Christians of the region. He relates: "I celebrated Epiphany at the Jordan At the spot where the Lord was baptized, there is an obelisk surrounded by a screen, and in the water, where the river turned back on its bed, stands a wooden cross. On both banks there are marble steps leading down to the water".
In the VIIth century pilgrim Arculf saw on the same spot a wooden cross in the river, the ruins of the church on the east bank, and steps leading into the water on the west bank of the river: "The holy, venerable spot at which the Lord was baptized by John is permanently covered by the water of the River Jordan. Arculf, who reached the place, and swam across the river both ways, says that a tall wooden cross has been set up on the holy place...The position of this cross where, as we have said, the Lord was baptized, is on the near side of the river bed. A strong man using a sling can throw a stone from there to the far bank on the Arabian side. From this cross a stone causeway supported on arches stretches to the bank, and people approaching the cross go down a ramp and return up by it to reach the bank. Right at the river's edge stands a small rectangular church which was built, so it is said, at the place where the Lord's clothes were placed when he was baptized. The fact that it is supported on four stone vaults, makes it usable, since the water, which comes in from all sides, is underneath it. It has a tiled roof. This remarkable church is supported, as we have said, by arches and vaults, and stands in the lower part of the valley through which the Jordan flows. But in the upper part there is a great monastery for monks, which has been built on the brow of a small hill nearby, overlooking the church. There is also a church built there in honour of Saint John Baptist which, together with the monastery, is enclosed in a single masonry wall".

Ainon Sapsaphas
According to the Gospel, John the Baptist was preaching and baptising "in Bethany beyond the Jordan" (Jn 1:19-34). The place was located and visited by the Christian pilgrims two miles from the east bank of the river at the beginning of the Wadi Kharrar in the territory of Livias - al-Rameh.
The place was known as Sapsas or Sapsaphas ('the place of Willows'), as is written in the Madaba Map, which identifies it with Ainon. A laura (a monastic complex) with many cells inhabited by hermit monks was built on the spot near a cave after a vision.
The fact is narrated in The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschus (VII Century). On his way to go on pilgrimage to Sinai by way of Aila, a monk from the monastery of Saint Eustorgius in the environs of Jerusalem took the road to Arabia. Having crossed the Jordan river he was stricken by a violent fever and forced to take refuge in a cave. Three days later, Saint John the Baptist appeared to him in a dream and tried to dissuade him from continuing his pilgrimage. He said to the monk: "This little cave is greater than Mount Sinai. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself has come in here to pay me a visit". Convinced, and recovered from his infirmity, the monk transformed the cave into a rupestrian church for the hermits living in the neighbourhood. "It is the place which is called Sapsas near the Jordan" concludes John Moschus.
The Pilgrim from Piacenza writes that two miles from the river there is a valley with a spring were Saint John baptized. The valley was at the time inhabited by many hermits: "In that part of the Jordan is the spring where Saint John used to baptize, and which is two miles from the Jordan, and Elijah was in that valley when the raven brought him bread and meat. The whole valley is full of hermits"
The sanctuary in wadi Kharrar was visited until the Crusader Period. In 1106 Abbot Daniel a Russian pilgrim was well impressed by the place:
"Not far away from the river, at a distance of two arrow throws, is the place where the Prophet Elijah was taken into heaven in a chariot of fire. There is also the grotto of Saint John the Baptist. A beautiful torrent full of water flows over the stones towards the Jordan; the water is very cold and has a very good taste, it is the water that John drank while he lived in the holy grotto". The place was later abandoned for security reasons. However, the memory of the place was not lost; as we can read in the itinerary of Grethenios in the year 1400 AD: "It is said that beyond the Jordan one can find the grotto of Saint John, it is the place where he baptised the people. We did not go there for fear of the Arabs".

Modern exploration
Modern exploration of the sanctuaries across the Jordan river started only at the end of the last century. Father Féderlin of the White Fathers at Saint Anne in Jerusalem was the first to identify and photograph in 1899 the foundations of a small chapel built on arches across the Jordan river in front of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist located on the west bank. The chapel was identified as the church seen by Arculf in the VIIth Century.2
In the same year, 1899, Father Féderlin could also visit the ruins on the tell Mar Liyas at the beginning of Wadi Kharrar indicated by the discovery of the Madaba Map two years earlier.3 The later explorers, the latest in 1947, could only see some walls and collect mosaic tesserae and Byzantine sherds on the tell Mar Liyas and in the surroundings of the spring.

The rediscovery of the site in 1995
After 50 years on August 11th, 1995, accompanied by Prince Ghazi Ben Muhammad a team of archaeologists could visit once again both sites guided by the soldiers guarding the border. In the field south of tell Mar Liyas they could collect some sherds of the Roman period, the first evidence of the possibility that the area had been inhabited at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus.
The visit and the interest shown by the Prince to the sanctuaries in Wadi Kharrar, resulted in a royal decree being issued by King Hussein on December 10th, 1997 creating a commission to develop the Park of the Baptism of Christ on the occasion of the Christian Jubilee. In the meantime, the department of Antiquities started archaeological excavations in the area directed by M. Waheeb.
On November 11th, 1997 the commission met on the bank of the river to decide about the practical steps to achieve the endeavour. Upon invitation of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, an Italian team headed by Arch. Vito Sonzogni visited the wadi and presented to the Government a concept for the Park.4
The concept is intended for two groups of visitors:
A. The normal tourist who is more interested in the natural environment of the area: plateau of the ghor al-Kafrein, the wadi Kharrar, the kattar, and the zor with the river Jordan.
B. The pilgrim for whom a sacred simple symbol is added to the natural environment. This symbol will help to remind the site visited by John the Baptist, Jesus and by the pilgrims.
The Park, a strictly protected area, is introduced and reached through a respected area.
A haram or sacred precinct in honour of John the Baptist venerated as a Prophet by Christians and Muslims alike, will be the reference point of the Park to the east on the plain overlooking the spring.
The main focus of the Baptism Site will be the Column in the river seen by pilgrims of the Byzantine-Umayyad times.5


1 Piccirillo 1998:132-149.

2 "A deux reprises, m'étant rendu au Jourdain pour la fête de l'Epiphanie, je tentai de profiter de la barque du couvent de Saint-Jean-Baptiste; le batelier consentit bien, moyennant argent à me faire passer le Jourdain et à me laisser pousser jusq'aux ruines d'une église mentionnée par Arculphe et bâtie sur un ancien petit bras du Jourdain...(Durant les vacances de Pâques 1899... dépassant, à l'ouest, les ruines du couvent de Sapsaphas)... après 150 pas environ nous arrivons à une sorte de canal ou petit bras du fleuve...C'est là que nous trouvons les ruines d'une chapelle décrite par Arculphe...Toute la partie inférieure de la chapelle existe encore" Père Féderlin 1902:154-156). The ruins were visited by M. Dalman in 1913 (Dalman 1913:24; Dalman 1930:127), and by D. Buzy in 1930 (D. Buzy 1931:444-462).

3 When he reached the edge of the plain on the Wadi Kharrar, Father Féderlin could see "une sorte de promontoire de teinte rougeâtre et ayant la forme d'un mamelon ...qui s'avance au nord dans le vallon du Kharrar... Sur la surface du promontoire nous trouvons des pierres de taille à moitié effritées sous l'action corrosive du sel, des poteries, des cubes de mosaïque. Impossible de retrouver les lignes exactes des constructions qui sont bouleversées; cependant, à quelques pas au sud du mamelon, nous distinguons les arasements d'une ruine carrée, d'environ 15 mêtres de côté, et où les mosaïques abondent. Sur le côté méridional du promontoire, là où il se rattache à la plaine, nous trouvons séparées l'une de l'autre, les deux parties du seuil du monastère. Le seuil mésure 2.10 m de largeur... Ce seuil, en pierre blanche très dure, est bien conservé. Nous pensons qu'il y avait là un ensemble de bâtiments d'une superficie de huit cents à mille mètres carrés de surface; des fouilles pourraient seules permettre de reconstituer le plan...La grotte a naturellement disparu sous les décombres de l'église qui y fut élevée". (Père Féderlin 1902:154-155, avec photo p. 153). The site was later on visited by M. Dalman in 1913 and Buzy in 1930 (see note 2); by F-M. Abel in 1932 (Abel 1932:245-248), and by A. Augustinovich in 1947 (Augustinovich 1948:43-50; 95-101; 1949:46-52).

4 The concept was prepared in the month of March (4-11. 1998) by a team composed of Arch. Vito Sonzogni, Ing. Ezio Motta, Ing. Giovanni Wagner, Arch. Laura Sonzogni, Fr. Michele Piccirillo.

5 In front of the Column in the river two levels of commemoration and celebration are envisaged. On the upper level there is the meeting point for the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus, which is composed by large steps covered with tent canvas around a central stone basin to which flow three branches of the stream coming down from Wadi Kharrar.
On the lower level, in front of the Column, there is the celebration point of the Baptism. This is the sacred spot to be used only by christian believers for the liturgical baptism. It will be reached through rows of steps, and through a ramp by handicapped people.

This contribution was first published in: The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 218-221.

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